Last year, Baku confirmed that its troops are to stay in Afghanistan even if the American military pulls out entirely. Azerbaijan is only one of eight countries committed to a post-2014 military presence in Afghanistan, a fact that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani applauded when he paid an official visit to Baku last week.
But Ashton Carter cannot take such Azerbaijani commitments and contributions for granted. Every country seeks to advance its interests and Azerbaijan is no different. American indifference toward Baku can invariably force the Azerbaijanis to rethink the commitment to Washington. In recent months, Baku has had to take into account two new geopolitical realities: an increasingly forceful Russia and warming U.S.-Iranian relations.
In order not to fall behind the curve, Baku in October hosted the Russian Defense Minister and a new defense cooperation agreement was signed. A few weeks later, Baku hosted the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani that again led to a number of agreements. Neither of these developments signify a change of heart in Baku, which is by all accounts still committed to an enduring partnership with the United States.
But given Azerbaijan’s unique geographic predicament, the U.S.-Azerbaijan relationship requires a reassuring hand. Lack of high-level contacts between Baku and Washington has certainly not been helpful. Ashton Carter is well-placed to bring some reassurance to this important relationship with a country that has so far proven itself to be a loyal ally.
Alex Vatanka is a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute and at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington D.C. He is also a Senior Fellow in Middle East Studies at the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School (USAFSOS) at Hurlburt Field and teaches as an Adjunct Professor at DISAM at Wright-Patterson AFB.